Ascot’s Head of Operations and Events, Joanna Wales is committed to creating a site that is accessible to as many people as possible to deliver the best raceday experience.
I’ve been working in the corporate hospitality and large-scale public events sector for over 25 years. My own events agency got going in 2003, Launch Pad Events, and it went on to win several event design awards and introduced three new venues to London’s event portfolio.
In 2009, I joined Ascot Racecourse as Operations Manager, looking after technology as well as safety, security and joint agency liaison. The strategic design and delivery of Royal Ascot was added to my remit, with the plan to create stunning permanent and temporary environments for over 300,000 customers across Royal Ascot.
Head of Operations and Events has been my role for the past seven years and as part of the senior management team at Ascot Racecourse, I run and lead the strategy team for the 21 other racedays. We also have large-scale events throughout the year, which have included the UK leg of the Red Bull Air Race, Luna Cinema and the Ascot Spring Garden Show.
Delivering Great British sporting and social occasions
I really love the family days here, they are probably the most stressful for the team as we are really invested in creating memories for the families that attend; the desire to get it right for everyone is really strong, and of course Royal Ascot. How could you not love being part of such an important British social sporting event.
For so many of our guests attending, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and while it might be our 50th Royal Ascot day this is their first impression of being here. I also really thrive in the can do environment here. A year ago, I identified that we were not delivering in some areas of accessibility and within five months we had created 16 initiatives to try to improve the experience. This initiative didn’t need a huge sign-off process, just a committed team of 10 that wanted to make the racecourse just that little bit better. It’s in our nature here to take care of people and to constantly raise the standard in everything that we do.
Customer needs – meet them and exceed them
What drives us most I would say is the way we see our customers at Ascot. We genuinely care about them and not just because we are told to. We recruit the type of people who pick up children’s toys when they fall on the ground and who help other people. When you have an approach of really caring, there feels like there is no other option than to do all you can to improve the experience for those less mobile or with mental health challenges. It is important that they can also have wonderful memories in the same way as customers without those additional challenges.
When I first started working here a decade ago the big change and challenge was to help the stewards change their natural response from “No” to “Yes”. ‘Let me look at your badge sir, yes, that badge allows you to use this area, have a wonderful day’ rather than ‘No, you can’t come in here’. We have taken the same approach to accessibility, whether it is the accessible toilets or the viewing areas. We are encouraging the stewards to identify genuine people with needs even if it may not be obvious at first. Someone with cancer, a catheter or a prosthetic leg, or visually impaired person might look perfectly able to use the standard facilities but if they tell you they need the additional help or space, let’s just trust that they do. I would rather that they allowed the occasional people who didn’t need the facilities than turn away someone with a real need for our help.
Moving away from one-size-fits-all
We made 16 changes prior to this year’s Royal Ascot. On one level it can seem overwhelming and complicated and there is an underlying fear that we might get it wrong, but we are hoping that people will appreciate the effort that we are making to try to get it right. We are working with national charities and have a group of them that we are using as critical friends to help us get it ‘right’!
This year we are hoping to have a body of volunteers called Ascot Access Hosts who will be led by our Ascot Accessibility Concierge. I like the idea that we are trying to create a bespoke service depending on the customers’ needs rather than delivering a one size fits all, that’s why we chose the title concierge not officer, as you would usually see.
We are working with our digital and marketing teams to spread the word and to highlight the services we offer. We are in no way perfect, as an outdoors event with mostly grass infrastructure surrounded by greenbelt land, there will always be challenges but we are hoping by offering a direct link to an Ascot member of staff that we have empowered to make things happen, that we can make a difference to peoples experiences here.
In other sports and concert stadia people are crying out for free tickets for carers but 95% of racecourses offer these already and have done so for years, no matter what our raceday. One big change we made last year was that you can now apply in advance for a ticket instead of having to queue in the ticket office and ‘prove’ you are disabled. It’s a much nicer experience and is kept on your record for regular customers so they only must apply once.
Using welcoming language to give our customers confidence
We are rolling out sunflower lanyards and the sunflower lawn for customers with invisible disabilities. We have a training module, which is in the core group of on-line training modules so all of our casual staff will have learnt about our approach to both people with visible and invisible disabilities. Language is important and will be part of this training, changing our wording to people with disabilities instead of disabled people puts the person at the heart of the discussion rather than the disability.
If racegoers choose to show or wear the lanyard for themselves or their carer, the staff will hopefully ask “How can I help you?”. It is then up to the guest to explain how we can help; we chose this approach as we felt it was a softer communication style rather than one of labelling of people, it also makes solving the challenge one that we do with the customer rather than thinking we know ‘best’!
And there’s more to come…
Most of the changes that we have made so far have been from existing budgets and we want to invest more in our estates as our next stage of progression. I want to see the accessibility approach embedded into all our staff, which will take time especially with almost 7,000 casual staff per day for Royal Ascot.
I want to continue to work with our charity partners to ensure that we are getting the best feedback from our initiatives and that we are building on national best practice, and in some cases that our initiatives are setting the bar nationally.